SDI at 30, Part V

From the cover of Time, April 4, 1983


There should be no more excuses for failing to build missile defense. The Cold War is long over. Reagan is long gone. Liberals, probably, opposed missile defense just because Reagan had proposed it. If, say, Walter Mondale had proposed it, on Reagan’s grounds of humanity, they almost certainly would have been all for it. It took Reagan to get them to say nice things about MAD.

I quote from the National Review editorial I’ve quoted from before, published in February 1999: “Defending America should not be an ideologically polarizing proposition.”

We are a broke nation — $16.7 trillion in debt — and it may not seem the right time to go full-bore into missile defense. To “go full speed on Star Wars” (quoting Buckley again). But there is such a thing as spending priorities. This is true of individuals, families, and governments alike.

Let me quote from the Reagan speech: “Isn’t it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war? We know it is.” Reagan was an idealist, yes, and he had a utopian streak. But you don’t have to have that same idealism, or that same streak, to see what he is saying, and agree with it.

I will quote from the 1999 National Review editorial: Expense should not be “an objection. In almost any government program some money will be sacrificed to the pork barrel or bureaucratic ineptitude.  But if the program can save even a single city, this spending is money well wasted.”

I will quote from Mark Helprin, in the same issue of NR. He says that some people contend that SDI is uneconomical.

This is an argument that is actually presented — that it costs too much. Excuse me? We spend three times what we spend on strategic defense on cookies and crackers, six times as much on sausages and prepared meats, and ten times as much on lottery tickets. By any humanitarian measure cost is immaterial.

Finally, Donald Rumsfeld, from his autobiography:

Critics also contended the system would cost too much. I pointed out that the defense budget was less than 3 percent of our country’s gross domestic product, and that missile defense was less than 3 percent of the defense budget. Was the prospect of protecting Los Angeles or Atlanta from a dictator with a rogue missile not worth that cost? It seemed that a number of the biggest spenders in Congress suddenly became penny-pinchers to block defense programs they opposed.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a television studio, listening to the guest I was to follow. She was a Democratic congresswoman. She was explaining to the audience that Republicans hated government and were content to have businessmen pollute the rivers and so on. But government had given us the good things in life. She mentioned the Internet and the highways. I thought, “Funny she doesn’t mention the Manhattan Project.”

Reagan did, in a letter to his friend Larry Beilenson in July 1983. Talking about his new missile-defense project, he said, “Let me assure you we are meeting with a variety of people and are looking at the possibility of a crash effort à la ‘Manhattan Project.’”

America should get crashing, because a defense against nuclear weapons is not something you want to be too late in acquiring. I quote David Trachtenberg: “You have to worry before the threat materializes. When the threat materializes, it’s too late to worry.”

To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.